UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — Marching onto the campaign trail for the first time this year, President Barack Obama accused Republicans of peddling fear and cynicism on Sunday as he rallied voters for Democrat Anthony Brown's campaign for governor in a heavily black corner of Maryland.
In front of a rowdy crowd of about 8,000 people — plus an overflow crowd in a gym next-door — Obama painted Brown as a champion for the American Dream during a rally that echoed many of the same themes as Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Echoing an argument that's become his party's mantra this election season, Obama said the midterms would come down to one thing: "Who is going to fight for you?"
"The Republican Party can keep telling you what they're against," Obama said, riffing off a long list: affordable health care, immigration reform, action on climate change, to name a few. "But the good news is Democrats keep telling you what things we're for. And the things we're for are things that will help working families."
At a rally that had the feeling of a gospel service, a local pastor opened his prayer of thanks by noting that the slaves who helped build the White House could have never anticipated that one of their own would one day occupy the home, evoking chants of "amen" from the audience. One speaker suggested that Brown, if elected, would be a leader in the model of Obama himself, while others denounced Republican moves to tighten voting restrictions as an attempt to stifle the black vote.
Obama's rally in Upper Marlboro just east of Washington marked his first major foray into the 2014 midterm elections. Obama was supposed to rally last week in Connecticut for Gov. Dannel Malloy, but postponed that visit to focus on Ebola.
Although Obama has raised money for Democrats this year at a feverish pace, he's stayed away from appearing in public with candidates — due in large part to his sagging approval ratings in key states. Obama will rally in the coming weeks for another half-dozen Democratic candidates for governor, but is not venturing into the conservative-leaning states where Democrats are fighting their toughest Senate races.
Support for Obama still runs high in Democratic-leaning Maryland — and especially here in Prince George's County, Brown's home base. Roughly 65 percent of the county's population is African American, and roughly 9 in 10 voters here backed Obama in 2008. Just next to the public high school gymnasium where Obama held his rally sits Barack Obama Elementary School. Currently Maryland's lieutenant governor, Brown would become Maryland's first black governor if elected.
"This will be a done deal — if you vote," Obama said.
Though limited in his ability to help his party this year, Obama has sought to use his own policies to frame an economic message that can lift up Democratic candidates across the country. In Maryland, Democrats seized on Obama's call to raise the federal minimum wage by raising their state minimum wage this year despite the refusal in Congress to take that step. In radio ads and other appearances, Obama has also sought to rev up the same voting blocs that helped elect him twice — including minorities, women and young people — in hopes they'll show up this year even without Obama on the ballot.
Making his pitch in person, Obama said that every time GOP leaders have had to take a stand on middle-class issues, they've said no.
"They said no to minimum wage. They said no to fair pay. Think about that," Obama said incredulously. "Why would you say no to women getting paid the same as men for doing the same job?"
Both Brown and his Republican opponent, businessman Larry Hogan, have received a boost in their campaigns from big-name political figures. Former President Bill Clinton helped raise more than $2 million for Brown's campaign, while GOP Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey will come to Maryland Tuesday for his second fundraiser for Hogan.
After his rally in Maryland, Obama was flying Sunday to his hometown of Chicago to rally support for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Unlike in Maryland, where Brown has held a healthy lead over his opponent, the race in Illinois is tighter, in large part due to Quinn's low popularity. Quinn is counting on black voters who still support Obama to turn out on Nov. 4 to secure his re-election.
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